School districts struggle with rules for administering medical marijuana - Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

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Nearly three years after Pennsylvania legalized medical marijuana, school districts are struggling to figure out how to get it administered to children who need it while dealing with conflicting state and federal law.

As medical marijuana burgeons across Pennsylvania and elsewhere – 33 states and Washington D.C. have legalized it – the federal government maintains a strict ban on the substance. Meanwhile, patients suffering from a range of chronic conditions, such as neurological disorders and Crohn’s Disease, use it to treat symptoms and improve the quality of their lives.

Local school officials say the rift puts them in a bind.

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette asked local school board leaders, advocates and experts to share their thoughts on how should districts should address medical marijuana in the face of a regulatory void and legal ambiguity. They were largely divided on whether school employees should be able to administer it in the current climate but agreed that the gap between state and federal interpretation deeply complicates the matter.

 

Annemarie Harr, an associate attorney focused on special education and student services at Weiss Burkardt Kramer in Pittsburgh, said the most frequent questions she fields from local school clients on medical marijuana include: Can it be administered in school during the day? How do we navigate that? What supports need to be in place?

“The guidance that school districts are receiving from the Department of Health and the Department of Education just isn’t very clear or detailed, or existing at all,” she said.

The state’s medical marijuana law, which Gov. Tom Wolf signed in April 2016, called on state education officials to publish regulations within 18 months. But as of this week, the department had yet to hand down rules for local districts on possession and use of medical marijuana. 

Education Department spokesman Eric Levis said regulations should come out within the next few months. 

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Diana Briggs, founder of PA Compassionate Caregivers, shows one dose of medical marijuana for her 18-year-old son Ryan uses daily on Thursday, Dec. 13, 2018, in the family's home in Export.

“The process for developing regulations is both complex and time-consuming and it is not uncommon for timelines to be delayed,” he said in an email.

In the meantime, the state Health Department has issued recommended guidance – effective until the Education Department defines rules – for school officials if they choose to develop medical marijuana policies. None of more than 40 school board members contacted by the Post-Gazette indicated that their districts have set up policies on medical marijuana.

The guidance says that a parent, legal guardian or authorized caregiver may administer medical marijuana to a student on school property as long as they have shown the principal proof of approval and notified the school in advance. They must then administer the medical marijuana “without creating a distraction” in a “secure and private location,” and the drug may not be stored at school, the recommendation says.

 

Naturally, patients and advocates bristle at the notion that schools would treat medical marijuana differently than other types of medicine.

“Ideally, medical marijuana should be administered by the school nurse, as any other medication currently is,” said Luke Schultz, a patient advocate who serves on the state's medical marijuana advisory board. “It’s recommended by their doctor to help with their medical condition, just like any other prescription, so it’s only right that they have access as needed.”

Current rules often create a “tremendous inconvenience” for parents, guardians and caregivers, who may not always be able to go to the school to administer the drug, he said. “There’s just a general lack of understanding of its medical benefit how it can be administered safely,” Mr. Schultz said.

John Metcalf, a Pittsburgh-area doctor approved to certify patients for medical marijuana, has treated children for cancer, post-traumatic stress disorder and chronic pain. But the No. 1 disorder that brings school-aged kids to his office is autism, which he said can some call for several doses a day to treat “aggressive, self-injurious behavior.” It may not be tenable for parents or caregivers to visit schools repeatedly each day to administer the medicine, he said.

“I think right now school systems’ current approach is ultra-conservative and has not been challenged,” he said. “If it’s been authorized to be used legally, it only makes sense to be allowed in schools.”

Typically in states that allow medical marijuana, a designated caregiver or school employee may administer the prescribed dosage, said Karmen Hanson, behavioral health program director with the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Colorado, Delaware, Illinois, Maine and New Jersey allow it; Florida and Washington allow schools to create their own policies; and West Virginia directed education officials to create rules within six months, according to the National Conference.

At least one local school board leader wants to loosen rules on medical marijuana in schools as soon as possible.

Erin Vecchio, president of the Penn Hills school board, follows regulatory developments closely, largely because of her concerns with the rise of the opioid epidemic and the success she saw a family member have in treating pain from a serious injury with medical marijuana.   

She believes so much in its merits that next month she plans to pitch her board colleagues on rules that would better facilitate use of medical marijuana among students and staff – a move that advocates believe would likely be a first of its kind among local districts.

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Diana Briggs, founder of PA Compassionate Caregivers, poses for a portrait with her 18-year-old son Ryan on Thursday, Dec. 13, 2018, in Briggs' home in Export. Ryan was brain injured at birth and has a tracheotomy and feeding tube, where Diana administers medical marijuana.

“As long as it’s watched over and maintained and a school nurse is involved,” Ms. Vecchio said.

Montour school board President Tom Barclay would be on board with employees to administer medical marijuana in schools, as long as state rules allow it.

“Who are we to say that if a doctor prescribes the drug and it helps the person, that marijuana should be any different than any other prescription drug that may need to be administered to a student during school hours?" he wrote in an email.

But in Plum Borough School District, board member and former president Steve Schlauch would object to any such rules because of safety and legal worries.

“I have legitimate concerns about administering it in schools,” he said. “There’s a lack of research on the use of medical marijuana and its effect on the safety and well-being for children.” He also suggested it could unfairly expose school professional to legal risks and professional sanctions as long as federal law prohibits marijuana.

Steel Valley school board President Jim Bulger doesn’t feel strongly one way or another about medical marijuana, but he knows districts soon will have to take a hard look at managing how to administer medical marijuana, if they haven’t already.

His main concern is unanticipated costs.

“What safeguards do we have to put in place?” he said. “What expenses will we have to incur to make it happen? From locked containers to training people other than school nurses. I’m thinking more along those lines, trying to think ahead of the curve.”

Five years ago, Diana Briggs would not have believed today she could go to a dispensary, buy dry leaf marijuana and prepare medicine in her home for her 18-year-old son, Ryan. Severely brain injured at birth, Ryan receives nutrition through a feeding tube and at one point suffered hundreds of epileptic seizures each day.

Doctors prescribed nearly a dozen different drugs, some of which hurt his kidney and liver, that did little to help the seizures. The breakthrough came when she and her family discovered that cannabis oils seemed to improve Ryan’s alertness and cut down on the number of seizures.

Ms. Briggs, of Export in Westmoreland County, is now a vocal proponent of medical marijuana and counsels other families. She believes school districts will eventually come around to treating medical marijuana like medicines, pointing to other states that have already done so.

“Nobody’s come for them,” she said. “We didn’t invent the wheel.”

It will likely just take a bit more time, Ms. Briggs said.

“The fact that we can now talk about it now is progress,” she said. “I think everybody wants change right away, but everything’s going to take time.”

 

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